THB #18: How To Make A Bad Marvel Movie
If you’re not amazed by how bad Chloe Zhao’s Eternals is, you either haven’t seen the movie, just hate all Marvel blindly or you really aren’t paying attention. It is quite a feat, really, as Marvel has done nothing if not maintain a level of consistency over the 25 previous feature films in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, which is to say, produced by Marvel under the producing leadership of Kevin Feige.
So instead of just doing an abusive review of the film, I thought I would offer up a more generalized idea of what core Marvel values are missing from this particular film. Here is a list of things not to do, if you want to make a Marvel movie that will not be mocked until Tony Stark returns to life.
Who is the villain of Eternals? Who cares? The mighty Arishem, whose spoken name is awful close to one the Jewish names for God, Hashem, makes the pre-Brolin versions of Thanos seem like a big personality. He not only looks like a bad LEGO figure… he looks like he was made of candy LEGOs. He is less intimidating than the cost of a large popcorn. The audience doesn’t get any insight into him… and thus, no passion and no interest.
Who the hell allowed the temp Deviants to be put into the final film? They look like the elaborate metalic macrame project that caught your eye at the art fair, but when you went to consider buying them, you realized they would end up in the garage after about a week because they are so ugly and uninteresting. So these non-descript, personality-free giant CG animals are running around and in addition to their big dumbness, they have tentacles that suck the everything out of Eternals when they attach for long enough. Zzzzzz. Sometime late in the movie, we find that if you, somehow (never explained), put a few of these things together, they take an almost human shape, like the world’s slimiest Transformers.
Truth told, bad monsters has been a problem through a lot of the MCU, mostly pathetically in the first Avengers film, where the flying scooter machines screamed of “we haven’t really figured out how to do this on a budget yet, so take this mediocrity in a movie you really liked until now and get over it… no one else has it down yet either.” But they have mostly solved this problem in recent films. That said, a movie I kinda love, Shang-Chi, is loaded with great monsters… until the third act, when it all gets sketchy and undefined and not as good as the rest of the film. If the MCU needs to focus on any one thing, it’s 3rd act, world-ending monsters. They haven’t cracked the code yet, aside from Thanos, whose physical and character personification of evil raised the 2-part Avengers “snap” movies above the rest.
I kinda knew we were in trouble when I read, before seeing the film, someone tweeting out, “If all Kumail Nanjiani was going to do is throw fireballs, why did he have to get so buff?,” we were in trouble. That and the ad where Sersi turns a bus into flowers. WTF?
Invincible on Amazon Prime did a better job addressing the superhero team where no one has enough power to win any fight on their own, but then Superman shows up. I have the advantage of watching watched One Punch Man with my kid, so I understand how cool the idea for Gilgamesh’s power can be… but it takes time and space to get the Zen of it. Thena gets a sword and shield. Wow. Never seen that before. Phastos is really, really smart. Sprite combines lemon and lime… oh… wait… she can change her appearance, isn’t blue, can project images beyond herself, and really, really wants to menstruate. Makkari, a character who used to be a guy, is a young deaf woman (for no apparent reason) who can run really fast. Druig has the creepiest power… the kind of power usually used by villains… he can turn humans into mindless zombies. (Insert Marvel joke here.) And Ajak… she has the red phone to Arishem and the power to talk slowly and calmly and still be the hottest 55-year-old imaginable.
I don’t mention Ikaris because he is the “Superman” character and the only interesting thing about him - which is a shame, as Madden can act - is that they use The S Word in a Marvel movie. I don’t want to do a spoiler, but the film pretty much reduces the alleged most powerful being on earth to a mediocrity whose skill set becomes less and less clear and whose moral standing is somewhere in the realm of a Trump-supporting Senator. Meh.
Characters Who Are Too Self-Serious & No One To Bring Them Down
One of the key components to Avengers is the balance of Tony Stark and Steve Rogers. (If you need me to tell you which heroes they are, why are you even reading this?) Tony is the from-the-hip asshole and Steve is the self-serious windbag (but soooo handsome!). Thor balances Loki. Natasha balances some of the other guys, depending on when you dip into which movie. Dr. Banner balances his two halves.
Eternals is a movie in which everyone wants to be quiet and serious… except for Kumail Nanjiani’s Kingo and Brian Tyree Henry’s dryly humorous Phastos (who turns out to be the most emotionally weighed down and maudlin). Kingo is so flip and half-committed, you can almost imagine him becoming the bad guy.
If you want to make a Kubrick Marvel movie, cool. But it is going to have to be 100x more serious-minded and reflective than this. Shooting landscapes is not what screenwriters are there to do.
Comedy Characters Who Wander In & Out Without Clear Purpose
This is another Kingo riff. I have only seen the movie once, so maybe I missed something. Dear God, I hope and pray I missed something. But Kingo dips out of the movie, with his sidekick, for no clear reason. And as an audience member, all I wanted to see was this jolly joker and manipulator of humans be an important part of the big fight… and to get a higher stake in being in the story. But like the bad ex who never shows up for his kid’s birthday parties on time, he just skips out. And then… it doesn’t matter. At all. Why?
Kill the character you like the most
I shouldn’t tell you who dies. I won’t. It doesn’t matter. All I can say is… never do this. Someone must have been watching The Untouchables and felt all those feelings that Mamet wrote into the screenplay and Sean Connery and his history with all movie lovers brought to life and thought, “Hey… that works!”
But I have to tell you… you are no David Mamet (nutty right-winger that he has become aside) and Chloe ain’t no Brian DePalma at the top of his game (she is something else and I suspect we aren’t yet close to the top of her game) and this was a terrible, terrible choice.
Oh, you saw Star Wars and Obi-Wan Kenobi dies and comes back more powerful as a spirit? Yeah… no… you didn’t get within a country mile of that either. You could have. You could have given all of these characters enough backstory to make it actually interesting. But a movie - even a 4-hour long one like this - can’t include 10 proper backstories.
And the movie is only 2 hours and 37 minutes… a long 2:37.
Make Your Lead Character A Bore
Here’s the thing. Mary Richards was the least interesting character in The Mary Tyler Moore Show. This has become a standard dramatic tool. Central character is the straight person and they are surrounded by funny or dramatic eccentrics. However… Mary was also funny. Mary had clear motivations. Mary had desires and passions. Mary had people who irritated her. And when Chuckles The Clown died, Mary was so uptight that she couldn’t stop laughing hysterically at the funeral.
I am a Gemma Chan fan. I look forward to her character when I see a film she is in. But her Sersi is about as bland and uninteresting a human being as I have ever seen in a Marvel movie. She has all the nuance of a piece of white toast with half a pat of margarine.
She’s thousands of years old… and she is still the most boring being on earth! Her power is weird and never surprising in a good way. She is never really thrilled or horrified.
And let me repeat… Sersi is boring. Salma gets to be the Fern/Fran of the piece (see: Nomadland)… though she doesn’t get to be that funny (aka show her range) either. Sersi needed something to do… something to make her more than just a cog who happens to be at the center of the wheel.
Prioritize a romance that isn’t fun or sexy
Of course, Sersi is a yawn, even with a Stark boyfriend and a Stark ex-boyfriend.
Is there any purpose for this love triangle? I guess it was a way to lock down Kit Harrington before Netflix tried to make him some obscure comic book action figure from that independent brand they bought and failed with once already. Aside from that, who cares?
You get the feeling Sersi dated Ikaris for thousands of years and never lost her virginity to him for fear of turning his penis into overcooked spaghetti. (You know when you are really hot for someone, your brain decides that their genitals are going to taste like dessert? The problem with Sersi is that she could make that happen. And while it might be amusing for an evening, no one wants to have to find new clothes to fit that modification.)
The entire world is at stake and the audience is supposed to care about who Sersi is giving blue balls to? Really?
And don’t even get me started on Jungle Cruise, where the level-headed scientist woman decides to give up the cure for cancer so she can bang The Rock. Who is writing these movies?!?!
Fail to define major character motives each step of the way
This was uniquely infuriating throughout Eternals. Even the characters, like Kingo, who had enough something to kind of feel their motives ended up wandering after a while.
The clearest character in the movie is Brian Tyree Henry’s Phastos, who has a husband and child and had chosen to lead as human a life as he can. But the motive for clarifying him is, I think, that he is the first practicing/living-life-out gay character in a Marvel movie. So his motives were repeated over and over, I think trying to make the argument - that should not be needed - that gay people are regular folks with normal relationships and families and love, just like you straighties.
Gilgamesh and Thena have this weird co-dependent thing going on… with a lot unsaid.
Druig is practically living on another planet, all in his own head, a selfish little superprick.
Sprite ends up playing like a combo of Pinocchio and someone trying to come out, while Makkari is just trying to figure out what the hell everyone is talking about so she can take aim and kick ass.
Every strand of these characters could have been interesting and/or a movie of its own. But with so many characters, none of whom could do much on their own, even with such powers… it all got to be a stew that someone forgot to season.
The Same Old Twist
I’d feel bad about this as a spoiler if it wasn’t so murky in the movie. But once again - and this is not just a Marvel thing - the “humans are just animals inhabiting Farm Earth and the universe would be better off without them” schtick is played out. The “new” spin on it here is “if we kill this group of meaningless animals now, better ones will blossom.” I can virtually see the moment in the office when, at 3:30a, after too much Din Tai Fung delivery food and wine, someone screamed, ”Eureka!” But it’s lipstick on what has become a pig of an idea.
All that said… worst Marvel movie ever. Most aspirational. Almost no aspirations met. Failure of trying to do too much. 7 of all trades. Jack, Queen, King, or Ace of nothing… except beautiful landscapes.